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Tom Doctoroff

Tom Doctoroff

Posted January 15, 2009 | 07:48 PM (EST)

Books That Reveal China's Cultural Constitution


Before I landed in Shanghai in 1998, even after four years of living in Hong Kong, my world view was "typically American." It's difficult for non-Americans to appreciate the sense of exceptionalism we grow up with. From Ronald Reagan's stirring references to the United States as a "shining city on a hill" to civil studies that represented American democracy as the culmination of Western history, we were raised with a quasi-religious belief in Jeffersonian ideals - an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness rooted in individualism - as the destiny of all mankind. For the past ten years, however, my job has been to advertise both Western and Chinese products to the Chinese. Some call me a sell out or, even worse, an abettor of dictators. Regardless, I quickly learned that brands must align themselves with a Chinese world view, lest they sacrifice both revenue and profit on the altar of cultural absolutism.

Topography: The Shape of A Nation's Soul

While no book can replace on-the-ground experience, several have been instrumental in shaping my view of Chinese values, social structure and cosmological beliefs. For me, the most eye-opening is Jonathan Spence's In Search of Modern China. The first chapters reveal how the Middle Kingdom's topography - i.e., the inherent instability of the Great Asian Land Mass, across which floods, droughts and famine present constant danger - has shaped a nation's psychology. He makes the crucial point that the role of the Chinese nation has always been to ensure physical survival. He further drives home how every strand of indigenous Chinese philosophy - Moism, Doaism, Confucianism and Legalism - reinforce stability and order as the only ultimate "good" and chaos as evil. After digesting his tome, a challenge read, I grasped why the Middle Kingdom is morally relativistic, a fundamental difference versus "enlightened" Western and rational absolutism.

Communism and Confucianism

Many books, including Jonathan Fenby's Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power and The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Ebrey, reinforce a reality that modern Communism has been built on the back of Confucianism, still the cultural blueprint of the Peoples' Republic. Chinese citizens have always had great faith in, even reverence for, strong central leadership, a manifestation of the wu lun, or five key relationship "dyads" that constitute all ordered society. Any force capable of unifying heaven and earth, forging unity from disorder, is respected as having earned heaven's mandate, irrespective of Occidental definitions of human rights. Both the first emperor, Shi Huang Di, and Mao are celebrated as heroic figures because they unified the nation. To them, and the Chinese, conventional definitions of "human rights" were - and are -- beside the point. Furthermore, all these books, directly or indirectly, stress a critical point: in China, the individual is not the basic productive unit of society; it is the clan. Western individualism - i.e., society encouraging the individual to define himself independent of society - is, to many here, a luxury and, when times are bad, a danger to collective well being.

More intimately, Ha Jin's Waiting captures, in spare prose, how romantic love, the highest plane of Western fulfillment, is often sacrificed on the alter of familial obligation. The imperatives of clan, not the human being, reign supreme. The same author's novel of Chinese immigrants in the American South, "A Free Life," reinforces the durability of these values even in a fundamentally different social milieu.

Ambition vs. Regimentation

I don't, however, want to give them impression that I regard China as uni-dimensional, a society in which Everyman has been crushed into submission. The "Confucian conflict," the dynamic that unifies all Chinese except those struggling for survival, is characterized by tension between regimentation and ambition, the latter an impulse of forward advancement through societally-mandated, then internalized, benchmarks of success. By mastering "the rules," historically encapsulated in Confucian canon, one could move up the hierarchy of success. This "urge to surge," albeit while avoiding transgression of the norm, is hardwired into Han aspiration. Wonderful books such as Peter Hesslers River Town and Oracle Bones beautifully capture the industrious, clever resourcefulness of Chinese, both poor and wealthy alike. While Western-style overt rebellion is rarely attempted, every Chinese has a dragon in his heart. Even relatively negative portrayals of modern China - Jasper Becker's The Chinese, for example - contrast "the system's" conformism against mainlanders' energy, an inspiring snap, crackle and pop.

Transcendent Delight

Beyond ambition, the Chinese' most charming trait is a desire to transcend sometimes harsh, always restrictive, realities of daily life. Buddhist nirvana beckons even jaded businessmen. When dusk falls, city parks morph into makeshift dance halls, with youth and old alike falling into a lilting waltz. Every city block has two massage parlors and a bathhouse, respites in an urban jungle. Even the simplest clothes are brightly hued, signals of a joie de vie capable of punctuating concrete monotony Su Tong's novel, My Life as an Emperor, lyrically illustrates how even the highest level of earthly power is ephemeral and true happiness exists when cosmological harmony is realized.

Of course, it is impossible to truly understand Chinese psychology, culture and history without studying the language, a fascinating combination of ideographic representation, conceptual creativity and analytic precision. Through every character, the shape and structure of China's world view reveals itself. The best study guide, one that effortlessly makes sense of Mandarin's mystery, is Elizabeth Scurfield's Learning Chinese, written back in 1990.

The above books are great guides to the Chinese landscape. However, none of them can take the place of old fashioned curiosity, good maps of the hutongs in Beijing and longtongs of Shanghai and train trips into the hinterland. None take the place of just diving right in and exploring a constricted yet spicy and dynamic society.